Deaths, Riots Over 130-Year-Old River Feud Highlights India's Water Risksby
Expanding cities, falling water tables creating flashpoints
Pressure increasing on courts to resolve water disputes
Coffee farmer Bose Mandanna has watched tempers flare in the southern India state of Karnataka as fast-growing cities encroach on increasingly scarce water supplies.
His beloved Cauvery -- a river that originates less than an hour’s drive from the 69 year-old’s home in the Talakaveri Mountains -- is at the center of a water sharing spat between Karnataka and neighboring Tamil Nadu. Those tensions spiraled into violence last month that saw two people killed and property worth millions torched in Karnataka’s capital Bengaluru, also known as Bangalore.
The Cauvery’s catchment covers 81,155 square kilometers (50,427 miles) across four states. The dispute over how much water each can access is an issue not just for farmers but for big technology companies in the area such as Google, Infosys Ltd., and International Business Machines Corp. It also presents a challenge for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in trying to get states to resolve protracted, economically-damaging disagreements.
“We are from the same country and we can’t use our own water,” said Mandanna. “The Cauvery’s water flowed from Talakaveri nourishing farms through the state.” Now, he said, Tamil Nadu is asking for water not just for their farms but to service the demands of their industrial towns like Hosur as well.
The Cauvery dispute -- now more than a century old -- is just one of six long-running, inter-state water feuds being heard by judicial tribunals. Settling them and establishing an integrated water regulator to resolve future disagreements is something Modi’s government has struggled to make progress on.
“There’s a fundamental flaw in the way we manage our rivers,” said Himanshu Thakkar, Delhi-based coordinator for the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. The lack of a transparent mechanism to resolve disputes combined with gaps in basic information about water flows means “it’s one state’s word against another’s.”
Rising urban populations and the hard rock geology of southern India that makes water tough to draw are complicating factors in the feuds, said Shashi Shekhar, the senior-most bureaucrat in India’s water ministry.
“People talk about availability of coal and power for setting up business in India,” said Shekhar. “No one really talks about what a risk water is. We need to manage our rivers as whole basins instead of leaving it to individual states.”
The issue takes on greater urgency when the rains don’t come. Drought-like conditions in 2014 and 2015 affected 11 Indian states. While monsoon rains this year have been better, concern lingers about whether the country’s reservoirs provide enough of a buffer against swings in the weather.
The Bangalore violence began after residents protested against an order from India’s highest court to share 12,000 cubic feet per second of Cauvery water with Tamil Nadu. The ensuing uproar cost the city 250 billion rupees ($3.75 billion), according to the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India.
After initially defying Supreme Court orders to release water, the Karnataka state assembly yesterday passed a resolution to release 6,000 cubic feet per second until Oct. 6 to help Tamil Nadu farmers irrigate their farms. It instructed the federal government to form the Cauvery Management Board, something Modi’s administration has contested.
Krishnaraja Sagara reservoir on the Cauvery, which helped transform the dry-land farms of millet into sugarcane in Karnataka and to paddy fields in Tamil Nadu, is at 31 percent percent of capacity. The reservoir supplies water to Karnataka’s biggest cities, Mysore and Bangalore.
India has failed to set up an integrated water regulator since independence in 1947, with the federal government playing a limited role beyond funding projects and advising in disputes. India is one of the world’s biggest users of groundwater, and the World Resources Institute estimates more than half of the nation faces high water stress.
“Corporates should be concerned. The violence over water has ensured that the economic signposts are being affected,” according to Damandeep Singh, director at CDP India, which says it holds the world’s largest database of corporate-related water information, collected via disclosures from companies such as Coca-Cola Co., Ford Motor Co. and Nestle SA.
The mostly agrarian dispute over Cauvery’s water transformed with India’s growth, starting in the 1990s when the nation launched a series of economic reforms. Two agreements signed in 1892 and 1924 were disregarded by both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu as populations soared.
Farmers planted water-intensive sugarcane and paddy farms, while the growing industry led cities such as Bangalore, Mysore and Hosur to spread across both states, further increasing demand on the river’s water.
“Bangalore’s growth has come from the auxiliary energy of the Cauvery river,” said A. Damodaran, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. “The sprawl of the city is at the cost of huge water scarcity,” he said. “It’s the same story across Indian cities when it comes to water.”
Back near where the Cauvery originates, Mandanna believes the government needs to take stronger action. “Unless the government steps in, I don’t see what solution there can be to this violence.”